Drake’s progress – the creation of a cult menswear brand

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I don’t consciously think about being a ‘brand’,” says Michael Hill, who sits in the bar at 45 Jermyn St in St James’s on a cold November afternoon. “You have to follow what’s going on inside your own business. You follow your own ingredients, your own staff and your own customers. I’m okay with being a brand if you make the definition of ‘brand’ a promise.”

Hill is the creative director of Drake’s, which was founded in 1977 as a business-to-business tie manufacturer and is now one of Britain’s best-loved menswear brands. He’s also unequivocal about Drake’s promise: “Great product, great craftsmanship, great people – for the long haul,” he says, sipping a cup of Earl Grey. “I’m not claiming we’re perfect. We have work to do, but we seem to be heading in the right direction.

The flagship store at 9 Savile Row © Rick Pushinsky
Printed pouches, £75 each

Printed pocket squares, £75 each © Rick Pushinsky

Hill is modest. He and his business partner Mark Cho (co-founder of another cult menswear brand, The Armory) took over Drake’s from founder Michael Drake 12 years ago. Before that, he was Drake’s right-hand man. When he took over, the business almost exclusively made scarves, ties and pocket squares in a workshop in east London. Today, he has grown Drake’s into a multi-category consumer brand with stores in London, New York, Seoul and Tokyo, a second factory in Somerset and an international customer base. In 2010, the company had sales of £4.5 million; in 2021, turnover is expected to be £13 million.

How did Hill manage the difficult transition from a heritage manufacturer to a modern brand without alienating existing customers? “Our craftsmanship gave us integrity and credibility from the start,” says Hill. “That’s the main reason we brought the company into producing shirts.” Hill saved a Somerset factory from closure in 2012, which grew from a few thousand shirts a year to more than 20,000. These days, Drake’s is as famous for its Oxford fabric button-up shirts as it is for its ties.

Michael Hill in Drake's on Savile Row

Michael Hill in Drake’s on Savile Row © Rick Pushinsky

Striped silk ties, £145

Striped silk ties, £145 © Rick Pushinsky

Costume Fabric Books Offer a Plethora of Choices

Costume fabric books offer a plethora of choices © Rick Pushinsky

Drake’s has gradually expanded its other categories, in partnership with specialists. The men’s shoes, when introduced in 2012, were courtesy of American manufacturer Alden, which still supplies the store today. The first suede jacket offered by Drake was a co-branded A1 bomber made in Italy by Valstar, and the first raincoat was the Corb II model from Japanese outerwear brand Coherence. “There was never a conscious desire to create complete collections,” says Hill. “It was more about discovering other workshops and suppliers and saying, ‘Oh, I like these sweaters, we will make some next winter’.”

Drake's Perennial Couture, £1,195

Drake’s Perennial Couture, £1,195 © Rick Pushinsky

Hill also brought in photographer and art director James Harvey-Kelly to help create the brand’s modern visual identity. “Drake’s reminds me of the preppy color and style, but there’s also anti-choking that’s really important,” says Harvey-Kelly. “These are not pompous garments even though they have a lot of provenance.”

In keeping with modern tastes, the brand has become more laid back. In the brand’s lookbooks, you’re more likely to see a tweed jacket with the collar up, thrown over a jersey hoodie and faded jeans, than a Neapolitan suit and tie. Hill says, “We always have to be about good clothes and good style. That’s not to say our look can’t evolve – I think it’s good that it does. It tests us. If we’re good at what we do, we should know how guys want to dress.

The brand’s recent collaborations with Aimé Leon Dore, a hot New York label that just received an investment from LVMH, are perhaps the best examples. While Aimé Leon Dore is strikingly different in tone (matching sweatshirts and joggers, utility coats, baseball caps, and sneakers), the capsules still feel authentic to both companies, perhaps because they represent a true meeting of minds: American streetwear mixed with European preparation. “Connecting with Aimé Leon Dore happened in a very organic way,” says Hill. « Teddies [Santis, Aimé Leon Dore’s founder] was a customer in our New York store. We were making his wedding suit and he said, “We have to do something.”

Wool socks, £35 a pair
Wool socks, £35 a pair © Rick Pushinsky
Drake Printed Wool & Silk Scarves, £245

Drake’s printed wool and silk scarves, £245 © Rick Pushinsky

The collections have certainly raised Drake’s profile in the US, capturing a streetwear consumer looking for something smarter. American designer and friend of the brand Aaron Levine explains: “Like all of us, Drake’s has grown and evolved. For me, I feel like they’ve become comfortable with who they are, allowing the concept of the brand to really take shape. The level of taste is what appeals to me – Drake’s doesn’t take itself too seriously. He’s having fun. It’s picked up where almost every other tailor shop has fallen asleep at the wheel.

Perennial Oxford Shirts, £175
Perennial Oxford Shirts, £175 © Rick Pushinsky

Also in the same vein as more streetwear-focused brands, Drake’s adopted a weekly “drop model”, releasing a few select products each week, rather than launching an entire collection at the start of a six-month season. It’s been a transformation for Drake’s: giving customers a reason to come back has seen online sales increase by 86% between April 2020 and February 2021.

Drake’s success, says Hill, is due to “authenticity.” “It’s kind of about trying to build a big company, I guess, as opposed to a big brand. What drives my job is trying to do things the right way; being connected to our people, our product, and the community we speak to. If that ever changes, it’s time for me to pack my bags and come home.

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